Two years ago, I sat in social studies class on a rainy Friday morning counting the hours until I could go home. As I typed out a text to an equally bored friend across the room, my male teacher, responding to an inquiry about his weekend plans, made a casual remark about his husband. Admittedly, I felt surprised. Not because I harbored any prejudices towards the LGBT community, but because he didn’t fit the image of a gay person that the media had painted in my mind. Years of watching television shows and reading magazines had instilled in me a misguided representation of gays and lesbians. I imagined a gay man to be as theatrical and melodramatic as Modern Family’s Cameron Tucker or as feminine and neurotic as Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland. My teacher, easygoing with a passion for history rather than Beyoncé’s latest album, did not meet any of these expectations. The results of misrepresenting a group of people in the media have a much greater reach than rousing me from a boredom induced near-coma on a dreary day. Young women often starve themselves to fit the stereotype of the perfect woman broadcast all across television and film. People of color and homosexuals face discrimination due to the broad and largely unfavorable preconceptions created by the media. The media stigmatizes the mentally ill, causing a lack of adequate medical care and leading to deadly consequences. While the writers of television programs likely believe that they serve as comical running gags or punchlines, stereotypical portrayals of groups of people in the media can have adverse and calamitous consequences in the real world.
Gender stereotypes occur across all forms of media. For instance, television and the advertisement industry constantly portray the thin woman as the “perfect” woman. This fixation on an ideal body type relates to the growing incidence of eating disorders and body issues among young women. According to the National Centre for Eating Disorders, fifty percent of girls between the ages of eleven and fifteen read fashion magazines and ninety-five percent watch television. This exposure to a thin ideal size corresponds to a time in their lives where self-esteem and body image are at their most tenuous due to the onset of puberty and the increasing tendency for social comparison. A desire to mold to the stereotypical skinny, “perfect” woman seen on television can lead to the development of eating disorders and rigorous dieting. This can possibly account for the drastic rise in eating disorders from 1.5% of women in 1988 to 9.3% in 2017 (Currin). Underrepresentation presents another concern about the portrayal of women on television. One study found that men triple women in number on primetime television and that in newscasts, women make up only about 16% of reporters (Wood). According to this researcher, “the constant populace distortion of men and women tempts us to believe that there really are more men than women and, further, that men are the cultural standard.” This portrayal by the media can foster the belief that women do not make up a large and active component of the population. Such ideas may cause a reluctance to acknowledge and reward women for their contributions to society, resulting in negative consequences for the already existing gender wage gap and the likelihood of women holding positions of power such as the presidency or a seat in Congress.
A high prevalence of racial stereotypes exists in television and film. For instance, Asian actors and actresses often find themselves playing the roles of nerds and intellectual masterminds. Unfortunately, such stereotyping makes it difficult for them to secure work outside of this limited arena, resulting in most roles — even those originally intended for portrayal by an Asian actor — to go to white performers instead. This causes a minimization of the importance of people of color in society and a lack of cultural understanding. In addition, casting Asian-Americans in primarily academic roles on television “plays on the existing stereotype about Asians being intellectually and technologically superior to Westerners,” resulting in the direction of antagonism and discrimination their way (Nittle). Furthermore, the fostering of the perception of Asians as the “model minority” in television and film further drives a wedge between Asians and their counterparts of other races.
Misconceptions and a lack of representation of gay people in television can have unfavorable implications for lessening discrimination against the LGBT community and the development of individuals within it. According to one study, “the lack of portrayals of homosexuality on television influence the beliefs among viewers that homosexuality is abnormal or extremely rare” (Fisher). As humans have the tendency to react more adversely to the unfamiliar and deviations from the social norm, this can heighten negative reactions towards the LGBT community. In addition, the absence of depictions of gay people — particularly positive ones — in media can lead to a lack of role models for homosexual teens or those questioning their sexuality, creating greater feelings of isolation.
Stereotyping of the mentally ill also occurs in the media. For instance, television often links madness or creative genius to a mental disorder, romanticizing the struggle of afflicted individuals. For example, a running gag on the television series Bones featured the protagonist’s socially inept demeanor. Although her awkward gaffes — characteristic of someone suffering from Asperger’s — continued throughout the duration of the show, the showrunners used them as a punchline and never addressed the isolating difficulties of living with this disorder. Additionally, an underlying criminal element to the portrayal of mental disorders on television often exists. For example, “popular psychological thrillers like Hannibal, Mr. Robot, and Dexter, all perpetuate the stereotype that people with mental illnesses are fearsome criminals, if not outright violent ones” (Bastién). This can inspire the belief that the mentally ill will not respond to reproach or assistance, causing them to be denied professional help that could aid in coping with their affliction. For many of the mentally ill individuals involved in the country’s violent tragedies, their diagnoses did not come to light until too late. For example, Adam Lanza, the man who shot and killed twenty-six people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, did not receive a diagnosis or treatment for psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (Cowan).
Misguided stereotypes function as a red thread running through all forms of the media. Television portrays the most beautiful women as the thin ones, and female underrepresentation in the media minimizes and devalues their role in society. Racial stereotypes, particularly those pertaining to Asian Americans, limit the work available to people of color in the show business industry and foster divides. Preconceptions about gay people and a lack of visibility in television heighten enmity to the LGBT community and rob homosexual teens of adequate role models. Inaccurate portrayals of mental illness can have detrimental consequences in reality, as showrunners and television writers often overlook the difficulties associated with these ailments or include a criminal undertone to the disorders. Although the depiction of these stereotypes may boost network ratings or make for wildly entertaining storylines, they have proven to be devastating in the real world.
Bastién, Angelica. “What TV Gets Wrong About Mental Illness.” Vulture. N.p., 8 Sept. 2016. Web. 8 Oct. 2017.
Cowan, Alison Leigh. “Adam Lanza’s Mental Problems ‘Completely Untreated’ Before Newtown Shootings, Report Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Nov. 2014. Web. 8 Oct. 2017.
Currin, L. “Time Trends in Eating Disorder Incidence.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 186.2 (2005): 132-35. JSTOR. Web. 8 Oct. 2017.
Fischer, D. “Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Content on Television: A Quantitative Analysis Across Two Seasons.” J Homosex 52.3 (2007): 167-188. JSTOR. Web. 8. Oct. 2017.
Wood, Julia T. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015. Print.